Mark Schalk is a Ford engineer by day and a farmer by night. He and his wife Sue maintain 28 alpacas at their farm, Two Branch Ranch, south of Saline. Besides raising alpacas, they harvest the fleece, process it, and make woven items for sale.
Now it is spring and time for the annual shearing. It’s a lot more work than shearing sheep. An alpaca can weigh up to 165 pounds. Mark and Sue do their shearing on weekends and it may take an hour per animal.
“We only do a couple a day,” said Mark. “We don’t try to kill ourselves. A good shearer probably can do 60 a day, but he’s got typically two to three helpers.”
Perhaps the Schalks are also slowed by their kindness. Their animals are treated more like pets. All of their alpacas have names and are readily recognized by their owners.
"We’ve got a little baseball team,” said Sue. “We’ve got a Verlander and Cabrera and Usher . . .”
Three-year-old Usher was being shorn on Saturday and he made it known that he was not happy. Sue Schalk tried to calm him by talking to him and cradling his head while Mark did the shearing.
The work can be risky. The next animal gave her a nasty bruise on the side of her hand. She has suffered many bruises, but, fortunately, no broken bones.
The product of this hard work is five to seven pounds of fiber per animal. It is not all of the same quality. The fibers must be graded according to their diameter in microns and the Schalks have learned to do this with the naked eye.
“We keep track of the weight of the blanket and the weight of the neck fiber and how much we took off the legs, the belly and the chest area,” said Sue. “Those are all kind of different grades, and then we get a poundage of useable fiber.”
Alpaca fiber is highly valued because of its insulating ability and its lack of itchiness compared to wool. Also, in contrast to sheep wool, it does not contain lanolin, which is hard to wash out, and it can cause an allergic reaction in some people.
The finest fiber is found in the blanket, which is the fleece from the sides and back. This fiber is used to make clothing. Courser fibers, such as that on the legs, may be used for carpet.
Nearly every Saturday morning in the winter, the Schalks are at the Saline Farmer’s Market in Liberty School. There they demonstrate weaving methods and sell various woven products from fiber produced by their own herd.